Stories and Symbols of Life: An Interview with Mehb Rahemtulla

By: Grace Jenkins

Photo Credits: Ken Sakamoto

On a rainy February day, I had the chance to sit down with Mehb Rahemtulla, a Vancouver-based artist. He brought books and slides full of pictures of his art to show us. His work is based off of the “visual emotional sparks” that we experience in our daily lives. These emotional sparks can be inspired by anything that we experience from day to day. All his life, he has been curious about the symbolic fragments that evolve within us, constantly changing their shape as time passes and moments happen, allowing us to reason and harmonize with stability amongst ourselves, and in relation to everything that happens. These fragments become emotional vibes that he infuses into his art. He showed us several different examples of the artwork he has created, from paintings and drawings to a photograph of a sculpture that no longer completely exists, part of it having been blown off of a bridge one particularly windy day.

Mehb shared with us the story of his childhood and his journey to becoming an artist. He was born in Uganda. When he was eleven months old, his mother died in a car accident. Two weeks later, his father passed away of a heart attack. He was raised by his grandmother, who was a first-generation Indian, half Hindu, half Muslim. In early August 1972, when Mehb was 15 years old, the president of Uganda, Idi Amin, ordered the expulsion of Uganda’s South-Asian minority. Mehb referred to this event as a “terrible exodus.” The South-Asian minority was given three months to leave the country. Though his family were full citizens and had never left East Africa before, the government denied their citizenship. Mehb shared a harrowing story about the day his family left the country.

“We left on the last day. The United Nation’s planes were landing, but this one was delayed. We had two hours or three hours before we would get arrested or shot. That’s the way it was. At the airport, after the deadline, there were already military lined up with machine guns. We were just holding on to our breath, thinking ‘Okay, hopefully the plane will land.’…The tower kept lying, saying ‘Oh, yeah, it’s on its way, it’ll be here in half an hour.’ It didn’t come in half an hour. And we could see the machine guns and everybody getting edgy. But then suddenly the plane landed. So, they went ‘okay, just leave, you’re the last ones, just go, we don’t want to deal with you.”

The United Nations brought them to a beautiful small town in Austria called Bad Kruezen. Even all these years later, there was fondness in his voice as he described the small town with a chapel on a hill. “It was heaven.” When it was finally time for him and his family to leave, Mehb did not want to go. “I told my grandmother ‘I’m not going anywhere.’ She said, ‘No, you’re under my passport, you’re fifteen years old, get your butt in the plane.”

It was in this town in Austria that someone first noticed Mehb’s artistic talent. Art, Mehb said, was always within him, but he had to find his way to it. He had been drawing since he was six years old. He described getting in trouble for drawing on the walls as a child. “I knew I was an artist, but I didn’t know where it would take me, until I was in Austria.” He was drawing in a chapel in Austria one day when a priest complimented him on his artwork. He asked him to teach a few art classes and draw some pictures for the children to color in during Sunday school. The priest later brought him to the house of a sculptor, whose backyard was filled with innumerous, nearly identical carvings of Madonna and Child. Mehb was stunned by the skill with which each carving was reproduced.

After two years in Austria, their visa to Canada arrived, and Mehb and his family moved to Winnipeg. “You don’t have to be an artist in Winnipeg,” he joked. “You just draw a straight line. Maybe add a bush if you want to be creative.” After the beauty of Austria, he cried when he came to Winnipeg. His family arrived in Canada with nothing. Everything, from their money to their birthrights, had been taken away from them in the airport when they left Uganda.“I don’t think Canadians know what it feels like. They have no idea about what immigrants and refugees go through.” People in the western world tend to believe that becoming a refugee is something that happens to other people, somewhere else. But, as Mehb pointed out, one terrible event is all it would take to turn anyone into a refugee.

Mehb, having studied as a child and teenager under the British schooling system in Uganda, was already proficient in English. He was put straight into twelfth grade. After graduating from high school, he enrolled in the School of Art at the University of Manitoba, studying drawing, graphic design, and printmaking. He intended to to get a job in graphic design. His interests were in modern expressionists, social expressionists, and social thinkers. His professor was a secluded printmaker who never showed his works to anyone. He was a very strict teacher, but he spoke beautifully, like a philosopher. Mehb attended that art school for four years. It was a rigorous program; of the twenty people in his class, only four of them ended up graduating. When he graduated from art school, he began working on his “symbols of life” series.

Mehb finds his harmony in being alone. “As an artist, you have to find balance. You have to find the beauty around and try and grasp it as much as you can.” To Mehb, art is a message. A message to enjoy and celebrate by becoming more aware within yourself. He had a message for aspiring artists. “Be honest. Explore and be honest. Do not ‘fit in’, where there’s an easy way, or you will never be able to tell who you are and tell the world how beautiful you are.”

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